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Thoughts on the Future of 3D Printing

4 Aug, 2014 By: Kathy Vogler, PERRY proTECH

It’s impossible to see where connectivity and other emerging technologies will move us in the near future.  But, it’s interesting to listen to the discussions regarding the opportunities, predictions, concerns and myriad of questions on how 3D printing will fit into this mix.  We are joined at the hand and brain to our devices and through those we are connected to the latest technology.  

And that brings us to technology that can print a solid object through computer control to a 3D printer.  That in itself is not new technology, but is based on stereolithography was developed by Charles Hull in 1984 at 3D Systems.  Even after the massive advances that have happened since then, sterolithography remains one of the most accurate types of hardware for 3D fabrication.  Another similar 3D technology, DLP projection, uses a projector to create object layers rather than using a laser to trace them; and, polyjet matrix that allows multiple substrates by solidifying each layer with a powerful UV light before the next layer is printed.

In addition to building plastic objects or prototypes, material extrusion printers can output semi-liquid materials such as concrete or chocolate.  Is it possible that someday you’ll walk into my candy store that has been completely built from the ground up with 3D technology to purchase fine chocolates made through the same process?  Possibly, though I suspect you’ll be ordering virtually online through the cloud.  Maybe I’ll have a drone deliver.  

For the past 20 years this “additive process” has been successfully used by many manufacturing companies to make their prototypes and molds.  The equipment and substrates are typically large and expensive.  Mass production for distributed manufacturing has achieved significant scale since 2010 and expiring patents on 3D technologies are driving down the cost.  3D printer manufacturers are now pushing price points down to the personal level and these are advertised as easy to use and usually Wi-Fi enabled.  You can purchase a 3D printer kit or just build your own … and of course there are online services now and your design can be printed for you.  I can’t help but wonder how long the actual production takes and what the burning plastic substrates smell like during the process.  

Stuart Dredge, The Guardian January 2014, shared a list of great things already being produced by 3D and “none of them are guns.”   This list includes diverse items such as fighter jet parts, prosthetic limbs, football cleats, horseshoes, guitars and children’s toys.  Hasbro recently announced a partnership with the aforementioned (1984) 3D printing company, 3D Systems.  “We believe 3D printing offers endless potential to bring incredibly new play experiences to kids,” said Hasbro’s chief executive, Brian Goldner.  And, Disney is developing software to turn animated characters into 3D printed mechanical toys.  

While Stuart’s list sounds like great fun, I do want to add that there was a 3D produced gun arrest made in Japan in May of this year.  A search of his home found 5 plastic guns, a 3D printer and gun-making blueprints.  Guns that can be made from non-metallic substances and can pass through current safety check points should be a concern for us all.  3D generated guns and body parts will continue to create media stories for years to come.  I hear scientists are even working on 3D printing of dirt.  

Commercial investments are already being made by some technology giants including HP and Microsoft.   There is an expectation of tremendous growth and profitability by many involved.  This industry definitely has amazing potential, but expect many to jump in and not withstand the short term losses.  If you have a moment, please watch this PBS video, “Will 3D Printing Change the World?”  as shared with us by our Konica Minolta team: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5AZzOw7FwA

Is this really the start of a new industrial revolution?  And, where do you begin with the legal and moral ramifications.  Who owns the rights to an object and can you be prosecuted for digital piracy?  Who is the copyright infringer -- the user of the digital file, the printer or the end user?  All of these issues will be addressed over time, plus many more including unforeseen moral issues.  At the first ever White House Maker Faire, President Obama spoke on how 3D printing would grow American manufacturing with a revolution that can help create new jobs and industries for generations to come.  None of us can predict the future, but we can be sure 3D printing will play a part.

Kathy Vogler is Marketing Dirctor, PERRY proTECH... reprinted from Tech Blog Ring July 2014


About the Author: Kathy Vogler

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